“Have you ever done something simply on principle, because it was the right thing to do, knowing that you couldn’t explain it to anyone, without there even being a good feeling attached to your act?”
Karl Rahner wrote that and then added: “If you have done this, you have experienced God, perhaps without knowing it.”
Jesus would agree, so much so that he makes this both the central tenet of religion and the overriding criterion for salvation.
We see this explicitly in the famous text in the gospels where Jesus tells us that whatsoever you do to the poor here on earth you do to him. For Jesus, to give something to a poor person is to give something to God, and to neglect a poor person is to neglect God.
There’s an important background to this teaching. They had been asking Jesus: “What will be the test? What will be the ultimate criterion for judgment as to whether or not someone enters into the kingdom of heaven or not? His answer surprised them. They had expected that the final judgment would revolve around issues of religious belonging, religious practice, correct observance, and moral codes. Instead they got this answer: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”
And what, according to Jesus, will be the basis for the separation? Only this: Did you feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Invite in the stranger? Clothe the naked? Visit the sick and imprisoned? Because when you do these things to the hungry, to the thirsty, to strangers, to the sick, and to the imprisoned, you do them to God, and vice versa.
And immediately there was confusion among those who heard these words. Both those who did what was asked and those who didn’t were equally befuddled and lodged the same protest: When? When did we see you hungry? When did we see you thirsty? When did we see you naked, or a stranger, or sick, or in prison and serve you or not serve you? When did we see you, God, and do this to you?”
Both are caught off guard and both ask seemingly the same question, but their protests are in fact very different: The first group, those who had measured up, are pleasantly surprised. What they say to Jesus is essentially this: “We didn’t know it was you! We were just doing what was right!” And Jesus answers: “It doesn’t matter! In serving them, you were meeting me!”
The second group, those who hadn’t measured up, is rudely shocked. Their protest, in effect, is this: “If we had only known! If we had known that it was you inside the poor we would have responded. We just didn’t know!” And Jesus answers: “It doesn’t matter! In not serving them, you were avoiding me!”
What’s the lesson? The more obvious one of course is the challenge that is already contained in the famous mantra of the prophets who had stated unequivocally that the quality of our faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land and that the quality of justice will be judged by how the most vulnerable groups in society (widows, orphans, and strangers) fare while we are alive. The Jewish prophets had already taught us that serving the poor is a non-negotiable, integral part of religion, that nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor. But Jesus adds something: God doesn’t just have a preferential option for the poor, God is inside the poor.
But there’s another lesson too, subtle but important: In this gospel story, neither those who served God in the poor nor those who didn’t serve God in poor knew what they were doing.
The first group, who did respond, did so simply because it was the right thing to do. They didn’t know that God was hidden inside the poor. The second group, who didn’t respond, didn’t reach out because they didn’t realize that God was inside the poor. Neither knew that God was there and that is the lesson:
A mature disciple doesn’t calculate or make distinctions as to whether God is inside of a certain situation or not, whether a person seems worth it or not, whether a person is a Christian or not, or whether a person appears to be a good person or not, before reaching out in service. A mature disciple serves whoever is in need, independent of those considerations.
The last temptation that is the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. T.S. Eliot said that. Jesus would add that doing the right thing is reason enough.